Palestine Granted Quasi WHO Member State Status – Without Voting Rights  
Palestine’s delegate, Ryad Awaja, a counsellor in Geneva’s UN Mission, applauded as he moves to a seat for member states at final WHA Plenary Saturday evening after Friday’s vote to elevate Palestine’s status to that of a member state – except for voting rights.

Palestine moved close to full recognition by WHO on Friday evening- with the broad approval of a World Health Assembly resolution that gives the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which has limited governing authority in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, all the rights of WHO member states – short of the vote.

The resolution, on “aligning Palestine” status in the WHO with its newly elevated status in the UN General Assembly, was approved Friday by a vote of 101 in favor, five against and 21 abstaining.  

The vote signified an important diplomatic victory for the Ramallah, West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority – which holds the official reins of internationally-recognized Palestinian institutions.  Until now, the Palestinian delegation had been attending WHA as “observers” by special invitation of the WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The same status  was held by Taiwan until 2016- when WHO ceased issuing invitations under pressure from Beijing. 

The PNA has been progressively marginalised over the past two decades by a succession of hardline Israeli governments as well as by its Hamas rivals in Gaza –  which expelled its leadership in 2007 and launched the bloody invasion of Israel on 7 October 2023, triggering Israel’s devastating invasion of Gaza. The PNA’s ageing political leadership also hasn’t held elections in the West Bank for over a decade. 

Paradoxically, the vote to enhance Palestine’s status also came on a day which began with the appointment of Israel to a new three-year term at the WHO Executive Board – following its nomination by WHO member states of the European Region. Despite protests, bitter critics and rival member states in the Health Assembly agreed to go with protocol and let the decision stand. 

Friday’s WHA – framed by the Gaza crisis and Israeli-Palestinian conflict

WHA member states raising their name plates in the air in a show of “ayes” for expanding Palestine’s membership rights

And this all happened in a day at the WHA that was bookended by over 10 hours of debate over two different resolutions, including four competing amendments, on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

One motion co-sponsored by a coalition of Algeria, Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, Egypt and other regional allies, slammed the “wanton destruction” of Gaza’s health and other infrastructure by Israel.  But the final version also carried an Israeli-backed amendment calling for the Hamas release of some 121 hostages still in captivity, and condemning Hamas militarization of Gazan health facilities.

A second resolution approved by consensus in December at a special meeting of WHO’s 34-member Executive Board, including EU countries and the United States, called for a “humanitarian ceasefire”, using more neutral language but without any mention of the hostages. 

Both measures ultimately passed with large majorities – but also with a raft of abstentions as well as objections on all sides of the deeply divided WHA member state body.  

Applause upon expanded role 

Egypt says vote by WHA member states on expanded rights for Palestine places them at the “right side of history.”

The expansion of Palestine’s role in the WHO, won a round of applause by WHA member states, with countries such as Egypt saying that the WHA had stood on the “right side of history.”

The Palestinian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ibrahim Khraishi, pledged to “cooperate and work alongside WHO, whose role we highly value… even [working] with those who say that Palestine doesn’t have the right to vote.”

He was referring to the risk that any bolder move by WHO member states to grant full rights could also jeopardise funding from the United States. In 2011, a Republican-controlled Congress cut off financial support to UNESCO, after the UN body recognised Palestine as a member with full voting rights. The US left the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization altogether in 2017, under the administration of former President Donald Trump, which accused it of anti-Israel bias.

Although the US committed to rejoin the Paris-based organization in June 2023, WHO’s leadership would be wary of teasing fate on the issue, given the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives and an uncertain horizon for Democrats in the looming November US elections. WHO also needs to raise some $11.1 billion more in donor funds from member states for its four-year budget plan – part of which will have to be recruited from the US and allies.

Bitter Israeli-Palestinian exchange during the vote

Israel’s Ambassador Meirav Eilon Shahar says Palestinians have failed to show leadership.

At Friday’s vote, the United States opposed the WHA move to enhance Palestine’s status right now, saying that while it supports the eventual creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Palestine’s aspirations for statehood can only be realized as a result of negotiations – rather than unilateral moves.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Ambassador, Meirav Eilon Shahar, deplored the WHO move, saying that PNA had failed to offer “a true alternative” to Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist.      

“What the Palestinian people need is leadership,” Shahar declared. “Leadership means educating your children for peace instead of indoctrinating them to hate…investing and not rewarding them for martyrdom. 

“Not a single Palestinian leader has condemned the October 7 massacre, not the slaughter of families, the sexual violence, the mutilation and torture by Hamas. We have yet to hear the Palestinian delegation question why Hamas builds terror tunnels instead of building a future for Palestinian children,” she said. “The Palestinian delegation and all those who support this today will pat themselves on the back for this World Health Assembly decision.” 

“But in reality, until the Palestinian leadership offers their people a true alternative, rather than supporting Hamas, a symbolic gesture in this UN Forum will do little to better the lives of Palestinians.” 

‘Don’t give us lessons in ethics’ 

Palestinian Ambassador Ibrahim Khairshi at the WHA vote expanding Palestinian rights in the WHO

Khraishi retorted that Israel “should stop giving us lessons in ethics… seeing the way in which they [Israelis] educate their children…

“We’ve seen with our own eyes the violations perpetrated by Israeli settlers. These things have been clearly documented and shown in the media,” he said, referring to the recent, sharp increase in attacks by extremist Israelis on Palestinians – particularly Orthodox Jewish settler youths in the West Bank.  

The Ambassador added that he was also perplexed by the United States’ position that Palestinian statehood could only be achieved through negotiations. 

“I am also perplexed with regard to the position with regard to the two-state solution that can only be through negotiation,” Khraishi said. 

“As we know we are now approaching the Fourth of July of 1776, when the US was able to get his independence without having negotiated with the occupier, with the colonial state. 

“This is an inalienable right and an absolute right for us when we are faced with genocide, for us to be able to exercise our right to self-determination. 

“And we are calling for cooperation. We are against this viciousness that is being perpetrated by the State of Israel and their supporters -where they are trying to disfigure the image of the Palestinian people. We are the indigenous people of this land, before even all religions, and we shall remain there. And soon enough we will celebrate with you [WHO] the end of this vicious and brutal occupation.”

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